August 5, 2010:
The U.S. Air Force, under pressure from the Department of Defense to "do more", has created three squadrons of MC-12 "manned UAV replacement" aircraft for service in Afghanistan. These began to arrive late last year. But now there's another problem, there are not enough pilots for these twin-engine intelligence aircraft. The air force never had a lot of aircraft like this to begin with, and those it did have were already heavily used in Iraq, and Afghanistan and other terrorism trouble spots. Worse, nearly all the new MC-12s were being sent overseas, so after MC-12 pilots and co-pilots returned home from their six month combat tour, they would have to be given another job, because there were no MC-12s at home (aside from a few for training) to fly. There was a similar problem with Predator operators, until, after a few years, operating Predators was made a permanent career path, and not a temp job.
Fortunately, the MC-12 is based on a commercial twin-engine aircraft (the King Air) that has been around for decades. It's a sweet ride and easy to master. Despite that, serving as an MC-12 pilot is also deadly dull, as it involves flying along roads or in circles for hours at a time. Not particularly exciting duty. The MC-12 pilots require a nine week training course, which includes simulator time, and twelve flights in the actual aircraft. The two equipment operators can do all their training on a simulator. The MC-12 itself is a modified version of the earlier RC-12 electronic reconnaissance aircraft.
A year ago, the first MC-12 squadron was deployed, to Iraq, where the twin engine aircraft was found to be durable and reliable. In six months, those dozen aircraft flew over a thousand sorties. That's about four sorties per week per aircraft. Most MC-12s are now in Afghanistan, and found the experience there similar to that in Iraq.
The MC-12 will provide the same service as a UAV (full motion video) in addition to electronic monitoring (radio, cell phone, etc.). The air force is converting some existing King Air 350s, as well as buying new ones, to obtain up to fifty MC-12s for duty as, in effect, a Predator UAV replacement. About three dozen are in service now, if enough pilots can be obtained.
The MC-12 will be a big help, because UAVs cannot be manufactured fast enough to supply battlefield needs, so the manned MC-12s helps fill the gap. The MC-12 is a militarized version of the Beech King Air. The army began using the Beech aircraft as the RC-12 in the 1970s, and has been seeking a replacement for the last few years. But it was realized that the RC-12 was suitable for use as a Predator substitute.
The King Air 350 is a 5.6 ton, twin engine aircraft that, as a UAV replacement, carries a crew of four. Some of the sensors are operated from the ground. This MC-12 can stay in the air for up to eight hours per sortie. Not quite what the Predator can do (about twice the time per sortie), but good enough to help fill the demand. The MC-12 has advantages over UAVs. It can carry over a ton of sensors, several times what a Predator can haul. The MC-12 can fly higher (35,000 feet) and is faster (over 500 kilometers an hour, versus 215 for the Predator.) The MC-12s cost about $20 million each, more than twice what a Predator goes for. The MC-12s crew consists of two pilots and two equipment operators.